Being more productive isn’t just about what you do–it’s also about what you don’t.
If you want to be more productive, don’t start by taking on new habits and routines. Instead, do less. The most productive people know how to stay focused and how to say no–but most importantly, they know how to delegate and outsource.
To get a handle on the time-sucking, productivity-killing tasks you should always hand off to others, I reached out to a variety of sources, including the folks at Zirtual, an online virtual assistant service. Here are the top things you should avoid if you want to spend your time on what’s really important:
1. Micromanaging your calendar
Yes, you need a calendar. No, you don’t want to be the person spending hours trying to figure out what appointment goes where. Both Maren Kate, the founder of Zirtual, and her colleague Joanna Cohen, cited this as the biggest thing a virtual assistant can do for you.
Whether you need to remember to send a follow-up email, cancel a free trial, or put out the garbage on Tuesday night, “anything that needs to go on the calendar is fair game,” Cohen said. “Doctors, dentists, hair, etc. It’s a good thing if your assistant knows these contact details better than you do.”
2. Buying stuff online
Just about any online-shopping task can be handed off–even if you’re not comfortable turning over your credit cards to an assistant, you can at least ask him or her to narrow down your choices. The same thing applies to making travel arrangements.
“Getting in the habit of handing these off is huge,” Cohen says. “Gifts, Amazon orders, clothes, tickets–anything that requires checkout, really. Decision fatigue is real.”
3. Finding a house or apartment
Granted, you’re probably not going to have an assistant buy a house for you, but that doesn’t mean they can’t handle many of the interim decisions. In fact, that’s why we have real estate agents, right? It makes a lot of sense to rely on them to do research and compile properties to look at.
To add an extra level of hands-offedness, why not have a trusted assistant be your agent’s primary point of contact? At the very least, that’s who your agent should be dealing with to arrange appointments and funnel questions.
4. Initial research/inquiries
This can apply to many tasks, but outsourcing the first steps of research or outreach on any project is a great habit. Whether you need to buy a big-ticket item like a car, write a speech, or choose a restaurant for your next big date, let someone else do the legwork. (An added bonus is that having an assistant act as a gatekeeper like this can force competing vendors to make better offers than they might if they spoke to you directly.)
The main point here however is that you’ll have more focus when you have to make a final decision. You’ll be better able to make quick, solid choices if you haven’t been the one spending hours assembling the information, and perhaps developing an undue emotional attachment to the search process.
As someone who doesn’t particularly like cleaning–and frankly isn’t very good at it–perhaps I’m biased on this one. Still, the time you spend on straightening your office or scrubbing the bathroom could likely be spent more productively on your business.
For that matter, most maintenance tasks, whether we’re talking about fixing the kitchen sink or replacing a faulty printer, are prime opportunities to bring in someone who will likely do the work better than you would anyway. The key is to ensure that you’re using that newly available time on other, more productive tasks.
6. Commuting and “taxiing”
If you think you’re being productive during your commute, you’re fooling yourself. Likewise, if you’re spending hours behind the wheel, shuttling yourself or family members from one appointment to another, you might as well give up on the goal of being productive.
These can be harder tasks to outsource. Moreover, you may have other reasons actually to want to handle them. (Maybe driving your kids around accounts for a big part of the one-on-one time you have with them.) Fair enough, but time you spend behind the wheel or navigating public transportation is time you want to reclaim if you can.
7. Staying in touch with friends and family
Of course you want to spend time with friends and family, but do you really need to go back and forth nine times with Aunt Sally about who is going to bring the potato salad to the family reunion? For that matter, should you really slow down your work around the holidays to spend an afternoon (or more) addressing and mailing greeting cards?
Outsource these details to an assistant. Let him or her worry about the scheduling, and free yourself to live in the moment when you’re actually with your loved ones.
Bureaucracy is a necessary evil, even if it’s anathema to most entrepreneurs. Whether you’re the boss running a huge organization or simply a person trying to be more productive while at the same time keeping up to date on your TPS reports, these are prime opportunities to hand off make-work to others.
“You wouldn’t want to delegate [a] business proposal…but you definitely should delegate that expense report,” Cohen says.
9. Anything you’ve procrastinated doing
This list is by nature incomplete, and I’m sure you can think of many other examples. One of the most revealing tests, however, is whether you’ve dreaded doing something or put off addressing it. Is it worth it to you to have someone else to do it, while you focus on more productive tasks? If so, hand it off. If not, maybe you can just cross if off your list anyway.
“Really productive people are great at outsourcing, to the point that they’re doing only the stuff they love and excel at,” Cohen says.
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